‘Dangerous place:’ Townsend mulls ways to keep tubers safer on Little River
By Lesli Bales-Sherrod | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Close to two dozen tubers have been rescued from the Little River in the past three weeks, and Townsend city officials are concerned.
“We need a high-water and a low-water mark,” Police Chief Ron Suttles suggested to the Townsend City Commission Tuesday night. “People need to know whether they can rent (inner tubes) that day or not.”
Fire Chief Don Stallions said he agreed with Suttles that something has to be done to improve safety on the river. He added that not all tubers the fire department has rescued have been wearing life jackets.
“Tubers think they’re in an amusement park,” he said.
The challenge this summer is the river is way above normal flow, Stallions explained. Foot entrapment is one of the worst dangers, he said. The swift-water rescue team trains on rocks, but there is “not a lot you can do” about the pieces of concrete and rebar in the river, remnants of an old bridge that was demolished.
A 13-year-old girl had to be rescued July 12 after she fell off her tube and her leg became trapped in debris. Stallions said the rescue took about 20 or 30 minutes after firefighters arrived on scene; fortunately, the girl was wearing a life jacket.
The number of rescues over the past three weeks does not count other “river-related calls,” Stallions added. These are tubers who have made it out of the water, but still need help with broken bones, cuts and other injuries.
Costs add up
In addition to the safety of tubers and the volunteer firefighters who are rescuing them, cost is a concern. Stallions noted in a telephone interview Wednesday that the fire department has damaged between $800 and $900 worth of equipment during the rescues over the past three weeks and have not been able to replace all that equipment yet.
Meanwhile, a rope and swift-water rescue refresher training from the National Park Service four weeks ago cost the department $1,000.
Right now the Townsend Volunteer Fire Department, which is not part of the city and serves the county’s entire 15th District, does not charge for rescues. Mayor Michael Talley asked Stallions Tuesday night how the Park Service handles the cost of rescues, while Commissioner Ron Palewski asked if there was some way the fire department could charge tubing companies for the river rescues.
“That may be worth looking into, considering you are putting your men in harm’s way,” Talley said.
One citizen at the meeting wondered if the city could charge tubing companies an entertainment tax, while former mayor Pat Jenkins, who was in the audience, suggested sending the bills for river rescues to the tubing companies’ insurance companies. He also cautioned the commission to consider the city’s own insurance coverage if Townsend establishes some kind of high-water and low-water marking to show people whether it is safe to be on the river.
“People who come here once a year don’t know if the river is high or low; they just know that other people go tubing on it,” Jenkins said. “But we will need insurance to cover us if the city says it’s safe and then someone gets hurt.”
Palewski noted the town had a tubing committee once and questioned whether starting another would help. The mayor noted that only half of the river is in the city limits of Townsend while the other half is in the county. He said maybe he could sit down with the county mayor in September and discuss possible solutions.
Perhaps a tubing committee would be part of that, Talley said, or increased education on the part of the tubing companies. He noted a high-water and low-water mark such as the flags lifeguards fly to tell beachgoers when it is and is not safe to swim could be an easy visual way to let people know if the river was safe for tubing.
“It’s going to take a big comprehensive overhaul,” Talley said. “It is a wild river, and people underestimate it.”
Stallions advocated getting the tubing companies to try self-regulation, which he said would lead to more partnerships and less adversarial relationships.
Regardless of the approach, commissioners agreed the fire department and police department, which often are first on scene and help determine how rescuers can get to the tubers in trouble, are doing a fine job. But the problem remains, and it is bigger than the city of Townsend.
“It’s going to take a joint effort with the city, county and the Park Service to make it a lot safer situation for people,” the police chief said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We have too many people dumped into the river for profit, and the river is a dangerous place.”